ATLANTA - For Georgia's defense, the regular season finale was a microcosm of its season: Early struggles, too many big pass plays, but surprisingly solid against the run, and then improving late as a whole, at least just enough to win.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham agreed with that assessment after his team's double-overtime win at Georgia Tech on Saturday night. And as his unit finished a rough season, Grantham's feeling was that "the arrow's up" for his young defense.
"Yeah, I feel good. I feel good because - I know we've got some work to do, I understand that," Grantham said.
Grantham pointed to the success against the run, including Saturday at Georgia Tech, holding the Yellow Jackets under their season average. Then he granted that the pass defense was not up to par, both on Saturday and this season overall.
"So we're gonna correct that a little bit. We're gonna get that fixed," Grantham said. "But we've got a lot of young players on our roster that are freshmen or sophomores. And the arrow's up. And I feel good about some other guys coming in. And we're gonna mesh them together, develop them and win a bunch of games."
Grantham is wrapping up his fourth season as Georgia's defensive coordinator. Several people close to the program, speaking off-the-record, said they would be surprised if a change was made, other than Grantham heading back to the NFL. None of them said they had spoken with head coach Mark Richt. But Richt, while noticeably short when asked about the defensive staff two weeks ago, said this past Monday he was "pleased" with his coaches, and pointed to the youth on one side of the ball.
As for the rest of the defensive staff: Defensive line coach Chris Wilson just wrapped up a successful first year at Georgia, as his unit was the bright spot on the defense. Inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti oversaw two of the SEC's top four tacklers, including the development of first-time starter Ramik Wilson, who leads the SEC in tackles. But the young secondary struggled immensely under defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos, who like Grantham is finishing his fourth year at Georgia. Lakatos has been requested for media interviews the past two weeks but has not come up.
But even in the secondary, injuries and youth have to be considered: When sophomore cornerback Sheldon Dawson started on Saturday, in place of freshman Shaq Wiggins, it was the seventh different starting combination in the secondary this season.
Georgia is set to lose just one senior defensive starter, defensive lineman Garrison Smith, who has six sacks and 58 tackles. A number of other starters are draft-eligible, but Wilson, inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera and cornerback Damian Swann have all expressed excitement about the potential for next year's unit.
The run defense is the biggest cause for optimism, with the Georgia Tech game another bright spot.
"When you look at the run, I think we played it as good as we have here against this offense," Grantham said, referring to Georgia Tech's triple-option. "We obviously allowed some explosive plays in the passing game which allowed points. But the players kept playing, and showing resiliency, and kept sawing wood. We got down. But part of coaching and part of program and part of being what we want to be is (when) it's going not the way you want it, you find a way to battle back and win a game. And we gave up seven points in the second half. We got some big fourth-quarter stops. We got an overtime stop to win the game."
Grantham pointed to some other key fourth-down situations this year, including South Carolina (when it got the stop), Vanderbilt (when it got the stop but had the targeting penalty) and Auburn (when the tipped pass touchdown happened.)
"We've got a lot of young players on our team who will grow from it, and will get confidence from it. We're gonna develop them and move forward and win a bunch of games," Grantham said.